Under Cover Business

by Rosie Wolf Williams

Whether closets or awnings, the Warrens have you covered

vermontclosetElizabeth and Todd Warren bought Otter Creek Awnings, Sunrooms and Custom Closets from founder Max Eaton in 2008. Todd is president and Elizabeth, hailed as “The Patio Room Lady,” does sunroom design and sales training in addition to marketing. In 2011, they bought Closet Crafters, a Williston company founded the same year Business People–Vermont was born. Last year, they doubled the showroom size and created two separate business entities: Otter Creek Awnings and Sunrooms and Vermont Custom Closets.

For Todd and Elizabeth Warren of Vermont Custom Closets, business is personal. They might see into your sock drawer, inventory your tie collection, and even organize your socket sets if necessary. No matter the project, they get to know you, and you know them. They are warm and engaging, but they work with precision and skill to create the perfect space for their clients.

Elizabeth came to Vermont from Connecticut to attend Johnson State College. She met native Vermonter Todd Warren in 1989 in her senior year, when they attended the same class. “She was, and is, beautiful,” says Todd, when asked what attracted him to Elizabeth. She graduated in 1990 with a degree in business management, and Todd followed with degrees in business management and hospitality management in 1991. They married the next year. 

Todd had been working at Smugglers Notch Real Estate while attending college. He continued in that role until 1996, when he was hired as director of sales at Hampton Inn Burlington. 

Elizabeth worked in retail positions after college and spent one summer selling timeshares. She discovered that she loved that form of sales. At age 25, she took a job at Otter Creek Awnings in Middlebury. “They were just starting their sunroom business,” says Elizabeth. “I have been designing sunrooms since then.” In 1997, Max Eaton, the company’s founder, decided to move the business to a 5,000-square-foot showroom in Williston. 

“I got a chance to meet all the folks at Otter Creek Awnings through Elizabeth, in sort of a fun, casual, social way,” says Todd. “I thought, these guys are pretty cool — just genuinely good folks. I said that if there is ever a job opening, I would be interested in being a part of their team.”

He and Eaton talked for a year or so about having him join the company. The move to Chittenden County was the perfect time for Todd to come in as president of Otter Creek Awnings. 

Elizabeth became known as “The Patio Room Lady,” and her warm personality and product knowledge boosted Otter Creek’s already strong presence in the area. Business was booming, and in 2005 the company began to look for ways to grow.

Five years earlier, Eaton had sold the business to Durasol, the manufacturer of Otter Creek’s awnings, and retired to Arizona. “We were always exploring different product categories that we might add to our current business,” says Todd. “I think it was Elizabeth’s idea that we consider the idea of closets.”

Elizabeth laughs. “I have lots of shoes! I am just kidding — I like the idea of just using space efficiently. It was easy to see the trend.” They researched the industry and realized that closets would be a great growth opportunity for Otter Creek Awnings. 

Although closets and awnings might not seem to go together, they fit the business model. “It is the same process we use for all of those products. We consult with people in their homes, we custom design something for them, we order the materials, and then we come and install it. So in that way, it is the same,” Elizabeth explains. 

The company was renamed Otter Creek Awnings, Sunrooms and Custom Closets, and a small sample closet display was created in a corner of the showroom. The Warrens purchased the company in 2008.

In 2011, they bought Closet Crafters, a Williston company that sold closets and organizational systems owned by Stu McDonald, with whom Todd had a relationship through the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.

Closet Crafters was founded in 1984 — the year Business People Vermont was born — and originally offered simple wire shelf-and-rod systems, but eventually offered more elegant custom options. The Warrens ran both businesses under the name Otter Creek Awnings, Sunrooms and Custom Closets, although the longer-term vision was to make the closet business separate.

“We had to make do for a year,” says Elizabeth, speaking of their need to merge Closet Crafters into their own business and to learn the wire operation, in which they had no experience. “That was a big piece of the purchase of Closet Crafters. Stu stayed on two years with us, and in fact, just got finished.”

Karen Abrahamovich has been a customer of both Otter Creek Awnings and Vermont Custom Closets. “We had custom awnings done by Todd for our pool area at our old house,” she says. “The same year we had them come back and work with me to design custom cabinetry and storage in my quilting studio and master bedroom closet.  The quality of workmanship and their customer service was superb!”

It quickly became apparent to the Warrens that their small closet display in the showroom was not going to be enough. “The closet business, from day one, grew faster than I ever expected it would,” says Todd. They decided to split the companies again, and in 2013 they created Vermont Custom Closets. 

Otter Creek Awnings had been in the same location for 18 years, as one of two companies in a duplex building. When their longtime neighbor, Pella Windows, moved, the Warrens saw a chance to take over the other half of the building. They designed a dedicated 5,000-square-foot showroom for Vermont Custom Closets, bringing the showroom size of the combined businesses to 10,000 square feet. 

The two companies share administrators, and Todd is president of both companies. The showroom reception areas sit side by side, with a window between counters to allow for easy communication. But, says Elizabeth, they are truly two separate entities: Otter Creek Awnings and Sunrooms and Vermont Custom Closets. Vermont Custom Closets has grown by 25 percent since its opening.

Chris Snyder, executive vice president of Snyder Homes, sells the Warrens’ products during his sales process. “But most of the work they do is after the people move into the homes,” Snyder says. “They interact a lot with our homeowners that may have just closed. They are professional and always approachable.”

The company uses many marketing strategies, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Elizabeth connects and stays in touch with clients, and is the face and voice of the company in TV ads and radio spots. “I use it to my advantage. I love it. You can be more efficient with marketing, and that is something Todd has always understood and done so well.”

Vermont is a big part of the company’s brand. The Warrens use props such as King Arthur Flour and Seventh Generation products in the staging of their showroom. The works of local artists add color to the walls.

“We talked a lot about the name of the company, understanding that we had two very well established Vermont brands already,” says Todd. “Closet Crafters was well established and known for closet work in this area. And Otter Creek was certainly well established and a respected brand. So we gave a lot of consideration to setting those brands aside and coming up with a new name, a new company, a new look, and a new brand, because we were confident that that was going to serve the closet business best over the long term.”

After less than a year as a newly branded business, Vermont Custom Closets won the 2013 Creative Edge Award, presented by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and Free Press Media. The annual award recognizes “businesses whose innovation makes Vermont a great place to grow 21st century jobs.”

“They get the concept of providing the ultimate customer experience,” says Jim Fogler, president and publisher of Free Press Media. 

The Warrens live in Essex, and have a daughter, Ashley, 16, and a son, Tyler, 19, who attends Bentley University in Massachusetts. Elizabeth likes to swim and work out. Todd skis and plays golf, and the entire family enjoys time on the lake in their Sea Ray powerboat.

At work, Todd runs the inside of the business and Elizabeth handles sunroom design, sales training, and public relations and marketing. They have 23 employees, 11 of whom work for Vermont Custom Closets.

“All of our employees get an equal share in the credit. We have had the good fortune over the last 20 years of having a remarkable staff and amazing employees. We talk a lot about the experience that we offer our clients. They are the ones who every day deliver that experience to our clients and make that real.” •

In 2011, the Warrens bought Closet Crafters, a Williston company that was founded in 1984 — the year Business People–Vermont was born.